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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ross Douthat: Why I Am A Catholic


Of all the columns I imagined writing when I started out at this job, it’s safe to say that Sunday’s piece, in which I suggested that conservative Catholics should “resist” their pope if he seems intent on leading the church off a doctrinal precipice, was not one of them. So it’s worth saying something briefly about my own personal religious perspective on the church to which I belong.


I am a Catholic for various contingent reasons (this is as true of converts as of anyone else), but on a conscious level it’s because I am a mostly-faithful Christian who is mostly convinced that Roman Catholicism is the expression of Christianity that has kept faith most fully with the early church and the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself. A point that Cardinal George Pell, recently of Sydney and now of the Roman curia, made in a talk this week — that the search for authority in Christianity began not with pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy, but with early Christians who “wanted to know whether the teachings of their bishops and priests were in conformity with what Christ taught” — is crucial to my own understanding of the reasons to be Catholic: I believe in papal authority, the value of the papal office, because I think that office has played a demonstrable role in maintaining the faith’s continuity, coherence and fidelity across two thousand years of human history. It’s that role and that record, complicated and checkered as it is, that makes the doctrine of papal infallibility plausible to me, rather than the doctrine that controls my reading of the record, and indeed if you asked me to write a long defense of “infallibility” as a concept I’m sure I’d end up caveat-ing it a lot more heavily than some Catholics of fiercer orthodoxy: The language that I think the historical record supports is more like impressive continuity on the most important questions.

One of those important questions is the nature of marriage. Unlike a lot of the issues that religious people fight about these days, and unlike many hot-button issues where the Catholic Church takes a controversial stance, the question of marriage and divorce is very specifically addressed in the red-letter portion of the New Testament — in the words of Jesus himself. His language is very strong: Divorce as permitted in the Mosaic law is dismissed as a concession to man’s hardness of heart, which under the new covenant is no longer permissible. Thus the line often adapted for the marriage service: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And thus the conclusion, which appears in all three synoptic gospels: Remarriage after divorce is adultery.

Now in Matthew there is a possible loophole — an exception for cases of “sexual immorality” (depending on the translation) — that is often cited by those churches that have allowed divorce. But the present Catholic understanding, that the Matthean exception either referred to premarital behavior that would make the marriage invalid or else licensed separation but not remarriage, has the strongest claim to being the view of the early church. (The hunt for significant exceptions to that view, which has occupied some Francis-era Catholics, looks mostly like a wild goose chase or an attempt to marshal exceptions to an obvious rule.) Indeed, it was precisely this emphasis on marriage’s indissolubility (and that principle’s implications for gender equality, among other issues) that made one of Christianity’s most striking cultural contrasts with the sexual culture of late antiquity. And it’s the view and emphasis that Roman Catholicism has maintained ever since, through varying eras and debates: Not always for pure or pristine or uncomplicated reasons (I am quite aware, though of course I’m also grateful to readers for pointing out, that politics entered into the debate over Henry VIII’s marriage, as indeed it has entered into many theological controversies in church history), but in a way that shows a remarkable degree of continuity, to the point of martyrdom, on a difficult and never-uncontroversial point. Whereas the churches that have separated from Rome — first the Orthodox, then the Protestants — have tended (with all ecumenical respect intended) to pass from making a narrow exception for adultery to making more general exceptions, until the teaching can seem to be almost effaced altogether.

So if you asked me, as a secular or Protestant reader might be inclined to do, “do you believe that marriage is indissoluble because the pope is infallible and he says so?”, I might answer: “Mostly the reverse: I think the papacy might well be guided on the Holy Spirit because it has taught so consistently that marriage is indissoluble, while almost every other Christian body has succumbed to the pressures and political incentives to say otherwise.” (And those incentives were powerful long before modernity.) I respect the papacy’s authority precisely because it has kept faith with one of Jesus’s harder teachings, in other words, and shown flexibility or made compromises only in a way (through an err-on-the-side-of-the-petitioner annulment process, most recently) that I think has left the teaching’s basic integrity intact. And that sustained integrity on such an important and controversial question is itself also evidence on behalf of Catholicism’s claims on other issues — reasons to at least respect the church’s teaching, even if you dissent from or don’t live up to it, in cases where the historical record is murkier, or the extrapolation from the gospels a little bit less clear.

Which brings us to the issue that prompted my column: The debate, encouraged and I think guided in a pro-change direction by Pope Francis, over whether to admit the divorced-and-remarried, people in unions that the church has traditionally considered adulterous, back to communion while they’re still in a sexual relationship with their new spouse. I’ve written at length, as have others more qualified than myself, on why this allegedly-pastoral change would, in fact, represent a substantial alteration of doctrine on a very consequential issue — either the doctrine surrounding marriage, the doctrine surrounding sin, confession and the Eucharist, or by effect and implication both. Some of the people supporting the change obviously disagree with that analysis and seem to believe that this shift would be more akin to, say, changing the requirements surrounding fasts in Lent — a strictly disciplinary or pastoral change, not a doctrinal one at all. (Though some, I tend to suspect, privately agree that it would be a bigger changer and that’s precisely why they want it — to prove that the church can shift substantially on a question of sexual ethics, and therefore that other changes are possible as well.) But my own view, that doctrine is actually at stake here, is not some convenient notion ginned up to make life difficult for a progressive pope: It’s the historic consensus of the church (which is why the rules are written as they are), reaffirmed consistently during the last two pontificates, upheld by the existing Congregration for the Doctrine of the Faith, and defended by a wide array of churchmen during the current controversy. They/we all may be wrong, but if continuity and consistency matters in the church then the burden of proof is on the advocates of the proposed change, and they haven’t met it nor in many cases even really tried.

So if the change being debated were to happen, if the pope were to approve and promulgate it, that would seem like a Big Deal, with big repercussions for how people – myself, and others – understand their relationship to the Catholic faith. Andrew Sullivan, in a post that I think perhaps falls slightly short of his usual standards of generosity, accuses me of being filled with “rage” over this possibility, and of calling for an anti-Francis schism. But that’s not what I said, or how I really feel. When I suggested that church might have to “resist” the pope on these questions, I had in mind public argument and pressure, a more significant version of the pushback at the synod, rather than a beeline to the local SSPX chapel, and if Pope Francis were to make what I consider a kind of doctrinal backflip I wouldn’t be making that beeline myself; I’d remain an ordinary practicing Catholic, remain engaged in these debates (because I would still think my side’s view is closer to the original teaching of the faith), but my understanding of papal authority would be changed in ways that would inevitably change my underlying relationship to the church. And it’s that change, working itself out across enough people and enough time, that I think would make it hard for the church to escape the fissiparous fate of Anglicans and Methodists and Presbyterians and other churches that have explicitly divided on these kind of sex-and-marriage questions, why is part of why I raised the possibility of schism: Not (God help us) as a prescription but as a prediction, based on the unhappy experience of our fellow Christians, of where churches where authority is compromised or absent on these kind of debates tend to ultimately end up.

So my dominant emotion isn’t anger right now: It’s a mix of dismay and determination, anxiety and hope, cycling back and forth depending on events. And if the change being bruited were to happen I’m quite sure that my main emotions would be rue and regret – rue that I had somewhat misjudged the church I joined eighteen years ago this spring, and regret that an institution that I believe to be divinely established notwithstanding all its human sins turned out to have a little less of the divine about it than I thought.

For more progressive or liberal Catholics, many of whom are attached to the church for somewhat different reasons, and some of whom just have a much more modest baseline of what counts as continuity and keeping faith, there’s a tendency to look at this kind of argument and dismiss it – as Cardinal Walter Kasper has – as the Catholic version of “fundamentalism.” Indeed, for this reason I can easily imagine Sullivan, or some of my other eloquent critics, regarding the remarriage-and-communion proposal as an ideal means of making their conservative co-religionists grow up, of forcing us to finally leave our fond medieval illusions behind and join the existentially-ambiguous, every-man-a-magisterium chaos of our liberal, individualistic, postmodern world.

And they’re certainly entitled to that view. But the “fundamentalism” jibe cuts both ways, and from the point of view of the conservative side of things it’s the liberal Catholics who may have an unwarranted faith in institutional continuity, in the persistence and potency of a religious body once its reasons for being have been deconstructed, or once its authorities have undercut themselves. This was a point that the then net-yet-Catholic Richard John Neuhaus made thirty years ago, in an earlier era of intra-Catholic, intra-Christian debates on these questions, and it’s worth quoting here:
When speaking with Roman Catholics of a certain persuasion, one is frequently struck by the power of what might best be called ecclesiastical fundamentalism. There is an ecclesiastical fundamentalism of fevered infallibilism, whose proponents exult in surrendering mind and conscience to church authority. But there is another ecclesiastical fundamentalism that seems to believe that — after every form of doctrine, discipline, authority, and communal identity has been abandoned — the Roman Catholic Church will endure so long as there is something to call “Catholic.”
… A priest in charge of ecumenical affairs for a large diocese explained to me … why John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger constitute “a return to the Middle Ages.” In leisurely conversation he expatiated on what a “really renewed” church would look like. Women would be ordained, pastors would be elected, academic freedom would be absolute, and all questions would be democratically settled in church conventions with a majority of lay votes. Yes, he agreed, such a church would look pretty much like the Methodist or Presbyterian church down the street. But in what way would it be different, in what way would it still be the Roman Catholic Church? He seemed taken aback by my question. “Well, of course,” he responded, “there would still be the bishops, there would still be the pope, there would still be the sacraments and the other things that really matter.”
But why should these realities still be there after every reason for being there is gone? That they would still be there, he allowed somewhat defensively, is an article of faith. So it is that we witness at least some Roman Catholics dismantling the house piece by piece while confidently asserting that the house is indestructible. Curiously, this particular priest harshly criticized [John Paul II] because “he talks about the church as though it were an abstraction.” Yet the church this priest describes —decontextualized, dehistoricized, and deprived of all its thus and so-ness —will, he believes, forever remain the Roman Catholic Church in which he made his first Communion and his ordination vows.
… For a surprising number of Roman Catholics today it seems to be inconceivable that any grave and damaging transformations could happen to their church. Of course we have our Lord’s word that the Church will endure, since not even the gates of hell can finally prevail against it. But, strangely enough, those who call themselves conservatives seem more aware of the possibility that the gates of hell might do a great deal of damage before Christ returns in triumph. They more readily recognize that the particular form of the Church that is Roman Catholicism is a historical construct and can be historically deconstructed. In this instance, Ratzinger’s complaint about theologians who view the church “sociologically” rather than as a “mystery” is reversed. An astonishing sense of “mystery” is to be found among the ecclesiastical fundamentalists who believe that the Roman Catholic Church can abandon its identifying particularities and indulge any force of transformation and still be the Roman Catholic Church. Their church, to which they are undoubtedly devoted, floats above the mundane, indifferent to the fragilities and contingencies of historical change. Therefore anything can be done, and it does not matter, not really.
That these things do, in fact, matter is a lesson that I think our Protestant brethren have been learning, at great cost, across decades of internal division and decline. Maybe I have misjudged my own church’s continuity and integrity, and it’s time for me to grow out of those misjudgments, and for Catholicism as a whole to learn the same lessons at experience’s hard school. But I make no apology for resisting, so long as resistance remains viable, developments that would make the reasons I became a Catholic in the first place look less like reasons, and more like wistful hopes.


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